Psychologists have touted for decades that exercise can go a long way in treating depression. Dr. James A. Blumenthal, a professor of medical psychology at Duke University, led a recent study in which he and his team discovered that, among the 202 depressed people randomly assigned to various treatments, three sessions of vigorous aerobic exercise were approximately as effective at treating depression as daily doses of Zoloft, when the treatment effects were measured after four months.
A separate study showed that the depressives who improved with exercise were less likely to relapse after 10 months than those treated successfully with antidepressants, and the participants who continued to exercise beyond four months were half as likely to relapse months later compared to those who did not exercise.
Even as little as 20 minutes a week of physical activity can boost mental health. In a new Scottish study, reported in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, 20,000 people were asked about their state of mind and how much physical activity they do in a week. The results showed that the more physical activity a person engaged in—including housework, gardening, walking, and sports–the lower their risk of distress and anxiety.
But now PhD candidate George Mammen’s review published in the October issue of the American Journal of Preventive Medicine has taken the connection one step further, finding that moderate exercise can actually prevent episodes of depression in the long term.
This is the first longitudinal review to focus exclusively on the role that exercise plays in maintaining good mental health and preventing the onset of depression later in life.
Mammen—who is supervised by Professor Guy Faulkner, a co-author of the review— analyzed over 26 years’ worth of research findings to discover that even low levels of physical activity (walking and gardening for 20-30 minutes a day) can ward off depression in people of all age groups.
Mammen’s findings come at a time when mental health experts want to expand their approach beyond treating depression with costly prescription medication. “We need a prevention strategy now more than ever,” he says. “Our health system is taxed. We need to shift focus and look for ways to fend off depression from the start.”
Mammen acknowledges that other factors influence a person’s likelihood of experiencing depression, including their genetic makeup. But he says that the scope of research he assessed demonstrates that regardless of individual predispositions, there’s a clear take-away for everyone. “It’s definitely worth taking note that if you’re currently active, you should sustain it. If you’re not physically active, you should initiate the habit. This review shows promising evidence that the impact of being active goes far beyond the physical.”
Published originally on Sanity Break at Everyday Health.